More and more American companies and non-profits are embracing DEI – Diversity, Equity and Inclusion practices in the workplace, including Goodwill Easterseals Miami Valley (GESMV). The agency has a DEI facilitator and a committee which offer education for employees on different cultures, as well as encouraging the conversation to continue about diversity, equity and inclusion.
Malon, DEI facilitator and Katelyn, GESMV staff trainer work at GESMV’s Main Street campus. In today’s blog, Malon and Katelyn keep the “what can sometimes be uncomfortable” conversation on the forefront, by sharing their stories.
“We can’t be afraid of change. You may feel very secure in the pond that you are in, but if you never venture out of it, you will never know that there is such a thing as an ocean, a sea.” -C. Joy Bell C.
I grew up in a small farm town called Okeana, Ohio and went to a predominantly white school my entire life. I grew up in a wealthy family and at the time I didn’t really understand what diversity was in the world. I only saw faces like mine every day and hung out with kids in the same socioeconomic class. I lived in a non-diverse world for 16 years until I joined cheerleading. I soon started to make new friends outside of my race and socioeconomic status. I made new friends from different schools which had predominantly Black students and started to become close to those friends. I remember asking my parents if I could hang out with my new friends at their parent’s house. My parents would say, “no, because they’re not like you.” I never understood what that meant until 2016.
2016 was the year it all changed. I got involved with someone who was involved in illegal activities. That lead to a sequence of events, and I experienced poverty, addiction, and the criminal justice system. During this time, I learned a lot of life-lessons and saw the impact of discrimination against people of color. Also, during this time, I met several individuals that experienced the same disadvantages as me. Once we got to know each other we started to share our stories.
On October 21, 2019, when my mom and dad picked me up from jail, I thought back about what my parents said about my new friends not being like me in high school. After hearing stories from others who experienced the same hardship as me, I quickly realized our stories were the same. We weren’t so different after all. We shared the same experiences, addictions, and financial issues.
Looking back now on my childhood and young adult life I wish I hadn’t been deprived of learning about those who may seem different from me. In actuality, the only thing that separated us was our cultural backgrounds. My perspective on diversity, equity and inclusion has significantly changed since experiencing the struggles that some people of color face on a day-to-day basis.
“For many of us, hurt often happens in relationships with other people. Therefore, healing needs to happen within the community”. -Lestraundra Alfred
As a Black woman growing up from the West side of Dayton, I am very grateful for my community. I was surrounded by love and support, where community members only wanted to see me thrive and prosper. I went to a predominately Black school of arts where we were taught to think beyond our means and let our creativity shine through. Having this mindset granted me a lot of opportunities that I know many people of my community didn’t get to experience because of their differences.
It wasn’t until I went to an area college when I noticed those differences. Freshman year was the hardest for me. Being that I was from Dayton, I assumed I would know all there was to know about the culture of the city. I quickly learned that was not the case. In actuality, the campus did not reflect the city’s demographics. Most students were from out of state and came from wealthy backgrounds. They knew very little about the region’s history and culture. While the University encouraged students to engage in the community, most saw no purpose in doing so. I began to experience Imposter Syndrome, in which I felt like I didn’t belong or I wasn’t capable enough. It wasn’t because I wasn’t smart or couldn’t meet the expectations. It was because I didn’t realize the importance of representation. I never had to worry about being the only student of color in a classroom. I never had to question the curriculum of being biased towards one group of individuals versus another. I never had to experience blatant racism from peers. Most times I felt uncomfortable to walk around campus as my authentic self in fear of being judged or harassed.
It wasn’t until I got involved with the multicultural center on campus that I felt like I belonged. They understood the struggles most students of color faced at a PWI (Predominately White Institution). By creating my own community and celebrating the students who were “different”, it let me to see the value that I bring to the university. I was determined to receive a college education and I felt a sense of obligation to members of my community who could only dream of being in the position I was in. And while they may not have the same opportunities as I did, their perseverance and support paved the way for me and many others to achieve our aspirations.
Many nonprofits and businesses are working to practice Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion in the workplace. But sometimes leaders are uncertain about the steps needed to turn dialogue and intention into action. There has never been a more relevant time than now to help organizations succeed in their efforts to strengthen DEI initiatives for the good of their employees. In both Katelyn and Malon stories, it is important to note their experiences allowed them to grow as individuals and see the value in DEI. Not only are they able to bring their unique perspectives to the workplace in implementing change, but it challenges them to seek relationships and opportunities to learn from diverse people.